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Atlanta United is NYCFC’s biggest test yet

This early-season matchup has long-term implications

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t let the fact that New York City FC are only 6 games into the 2018 season fool you. Their Sunday matchup against Atlanta United in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a huge one. Not only are these two teams jockeying for top spots in the Eastern Conference, they are also on a crash course for a berth in the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.

NYCFC have gotten off to a stellar start. Through their first 6 games in the 2018 MLS season, the Boys in Blue have posted an unbeaten 4-0-1 (W-L-D) record, good for 13 out of a possible 15 points. This stellar start off the blocks has seen New York City catapult to the top of the table in the early goings, giving them plenty of breathing room to start the season. Additionally, the Pigeons have averaged 2.33 goals per game and have an impressive goal differential of +10, the best in the league thus far.

Atlanta have gotten off to an impressive start of their own. The Five Stripes sit in second place in the Eastern Conference with 12 points, four behind NYCFC, and also have a game in hand. Their 13 goals scored this season trails only New York City, who have 14. And while their defensive abilities are still very much a question mark like they were last season, ATL’s offensive prowess is just as potent as ever, with stars Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron both off to amazing starts.

New York City has already faced quality opponents this season; they had to begin their 2018 campaign against the current Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park in which they defeated the Wizards in a definitive 2-0 contest. However, NYCFC has yet to face a team as dangerous and offensively proficient as Atlanta.

If there is any litmus test for the Blues and their ability to take it to top-tier opponents, this game is it.

A big-time game like this is also the perfect test to see if David Villa can still contribute to the Piegons the way he has in the past. Coming off of an admittedly underwhelming appearance as a substitute in City’s 4-0 victory against Real Salt Lake, El Guaje has some serious catching up to do. Prior to the rout against RSL, Villa missed three straight games due to various injuries. The Spanish legend has only started twice this year and is gonna need a quality performance to get him back in form.

This game will also be a way to accurately assess the profiency of center back duo Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens. Thus far, Chanot and Callens have been nearly perfect. Out of the six games City has played, the Luxembourg-Peruvian connection has played alongside each other in five of them. In those five games, they have only conceded three goals and have logged three clean sheets. That’s pretty damn good and should do well for their confidence going into A-Town. But, as we all know, all it takes is one mistake for Martinez, Almiron, and company to completely ruin a defense’s day. And in order for their dream start to continue, Chanot and Callens will have to reach deep down and weather the absolute onslaught Tata Martino’s boys will bring on Sunday.

Obviously, it’s still only April and there is a lot of season left to play. But with Toronto FC dropping points in league play and the New York Red Bulls being a tad inconsistent, the Five Stripes may be the only obstacle in the way of a red hot NYCFC.

For now, at least.